Graeme Steel has been the face of New Zealand sport’s anti-doping crusade for close to three decades. In this exclusive interview with Dylan Cleaver, he explains why he is resigning and shares some fishing stories as well.

Want to hear about the ones that got away? You don't have to go back far when you're talking to the man more responsible than any for keeping New Zealand sport clean over the past 30 years.

"We didn't have the tools to deal with or understand what was going on in cycling. New Zealand cyclists were involved in that like everybody else," Graeme Steel baldly states.

"The 'Omerta' thing in cycling is alive and well in New Zealand cycling. There are some we didn't catch, for sure."

Steel sensibly refuses to point the finger at individuals. Discretion, in the world he moves in, is just as valuable a commodity as valour.


The 61-year-old has resigned his role as CEO of Drug-Free Sport New Zealand after 29 years, in one guise or another, in the role.

He leaves with doping back on the top of the world sporting agenda, but with New Zealand's reputation as a "clean" player not just intact, but enhanced. Steel is averse to small talk, but when he shoots he shoots straight and he says his organisation, and by extension himself, has to take some credit for that.

"Yes, some," he says. "We've run a good programme. As good as most in the world. But predominantly we are not a nation that supports cheating.

"The kind of people that have run sport here are the kind of people that see sport is actually about the way you compete as much as it is about the result. That's the message that's under threat and we have to retain that at all costs.

"If you want sport as entertainment, like the WWE, and if you listen to talkback it seems a lot of people want that, then that's fine, but if that's the case the Government won't invest in it, the volunteers aren't going to be involved in it and you're going to lose your entire sporting fabric."

Steel has in many respects straddled the line between anti-doping crusader and outspoken critic of anti-doping authorities.

"One of my roles has been keeping Wada honest. They're a good organisation but some of the stuff they're doing they're doing wrong."

He has, for example, advocated strongly against testing for recreational drugs, particularly marijuana.

"Don't get me wrong. I don't think it's a good idea to use cannabis at all but our tool is the wrong tool to address that. It's like trying to use a Phillips screwdriver when you need a flathead. The motivation for using marijuana and the environment it is used in is completely different from using a steroid.

"I'm very clear in that we're not here to enforce criminal law and we're not the social police. We're here to preserve the sanctity, if you like, of sporting competition. That's got to be our focus."

He also sympathises with the various player unions who believe the Whereabouts programme, where athletes have to provide information about where they will be on any given day down to the hour, is unwieldy and largely unnecessary.

"The difficulty is, when you take what happened in cycling and how dirty it has been, if you develop an anti-doping programme you say, 'Well that's what we need to respond to and the rules are the same for everybody.' You bring in all the bells and whistles and a really oppressive programme because one sector of sport needs that. It's really hard to then say, 'Oh, but rugby and cricket are okay and don't need that,' because once you've got those rules it's hard to apply them partially.

"But I'm not sure one-size-fits-all is the way to go. We have been more strident than most organisations and I have been more strident than most of my peers in saying to Wada, 'This is unreasonable, it is over the top'."

Against the wishes of World Rugby, Steel has held the All Blacks out of the top level of the Whereabouts programme, which seems counter-intuitive when you think of the benefits dopers could accrue in a contact sport.

"But Whereabouts is about finding athletes," he reasons. "If we want to find our top rugby players, 300 days of the year we can pick up a newspaper and know where they are so we do we have to put them through the top level of the programme when the real time of concern is about a month-and-a-half around December?"

While Steel will remain involved, he will not do so as CEO. He believes it is time for a new face to give the organisation fresh impetus as it re-engages with its various stakeholders.

Steel came to the world of syringes and dodgy supplements through the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

"I was a teacher and played a lot of sport and the NZOC was looking for a development officer to promote Olympism.

"I played on the national volleyball team for 13 years and played a lot of cricket for Kilbirnie [now Eastern Suburbs] in the era when we had Richard Collinge, Bruce Edgar, Bert Vance and Evan Gray."

They would go on to play test cricket but Steel never reached his potential in the summer sport. It did have a massive bearing on his moral compass though.

One day Steel found himself batting and edged a ball to first slip where it was duly caught. The young Steel stood his ground and, remarkably, was given not out. Almost immediately he was consumed by a feeling of guilt.

"It was an epiphany for me," Steel said. "I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here, I'm out.' From that point on I walked and that set for me where I stood in terms of sport and the right and the wrong way to do things.

"I wouldn't say I was on a crusade, but the job fitted with me."

He came into it when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's stanozolol sample turned up traces of urine in Seoul 1988. As Richard Moore captured perfectly in his less than subtlety titled book The Dirtiest Race in History, Johnson can consider himself unlucky to be the only one caught.

Auckland was about to host the 1990 Commonwealth Games and nobody wanted our athletes embarrassing themselves and the country like Johnson had.

There have been incidents and accidents along the way, some Steel remembers less fondly than others. Like swimmer Trent Bray, who tested positive for nandrolone in 1999.

"I was never convinced Trent Bray was cheating but that's what the lab told us. That was odd. The lab said nandrolone was there so we had to run the case. But a whole lot of things about Trent and about the situation didn't fit as well as you'd want to say, 'Yeah, it's a clear case.'

"One I'll always remember is a boxer called Garth da Silva. He was one of the most impressive young athletes you'd ever meet and was absolutely rigorous around anti-doping and would ring us from all over the world to check out stuff. He ended up buying a supplement over in the States with exactly the same label and packaging as he'd got in New Zealand but in the States they'd added DHER. He tested positive [to an elevated testosterone reading] and that was just a waste of a great athlete.

"Liza Hunter-Galvan was another high-profile one. That was our test. We knew where she was because she was in our Whereabouts programme."

Marathon runner Hunter-Galvan initially went to prominent US lawyer Howard Jacobs but, realising she had few cards to play, admitted her guilt.

"It was a slam dunk but I don't know why she answered the door, really. Cyclists talk about when you're 'glowing' and the doorbell goes and you don't know who it is you just don't answer the door and you cop your strike. I don't want to give people a how-to here but all the athletes know it."

Triathlete Kris Gemmell also caused headaches when he was caught out missing three tests via the Whereabouts programme, although he was essentially retired.

"He wouldn't formally retire, he stayed in the programme, we tried to test him but he wasn't around ... three times.

"We don't want to catch people that way. It's not like we're saying, 'Ha ha, we got ya'. The last thing we want to do is catch you out because you're badly organised rather than a cheat. He just wouldn't comply."

The fact Steel can recite the minutiae of most of New Zealand's high-profile cases is a good sign. He can't offer a guarantee, but reckons New Zealand had clean teams in Rio.

"The public can be very confident that our great success was achieved through hard work and ability alone.

"The 1980s, and, to some extent, the 1990s were different and it was much more difficult, in some events, for clean athletes to be successful. In that respect, we're in a far better place now than we were."